How I Started Working with Animals

The question I get asked most often is how I got started working with animals.

Well let me just tell you this; it wasn't easy. Many are familiar with the struggle of following their passions in life, because for the majority, passions don't pay. Fortunately I've found an avenue into being paid to do what I love, and if you're interested in my story on.

I grew up in low-income household with little prospect for success. But I remember being fascinated as a child by educational programs on PBS. In the absence of parental education, PBS became my mentor. My favorite show was Nature, which I watched religiously. That's where my love of animals and the natural world began. Though owls, foxes, and cheetahs were my favorite, I learned to respect all of the different species because of the role each one plays in its ecosystem.

My 9th grade yearbook photo
In high school, I took up modern dance classes and found dance to be a great outlet for the frustrations of my childhood and living situation. I also found solace in my AP biology class, taught by my favorite high school teacher, Mr. Terry Eckberg, who ignited a flame inside me for the biological world. When applying for early entry to the University of Utah, I had a choice between majoring in dance or majoring in biology. Both would require discipline and a lot of work. I ended up choosing biology and never looked back. 

Through the University, I was introduced to the world of scientific research, and began working in the
biology department's research labs. My first job was caring for a mouse colony belonging to a lab that studied pathogenic disease in lab mice. I was involved in the research as well, but my main job was the daily husbandry of the laboratory mice. I loved observing the mice, weaning the baby mice from the parents, ogling at how cute they were, and taking a few of the babies home to add to my growing collection of pet mice (the lab had extraneous amounts of baby mice). I’m not particularly proud of having a job that involved research on mice, but I had to start somewhere, and that was the job that made me realize I loved seeing animals' faces every day.

Little me working in the laboratory
I eventually found a more suitable position working in a tropical research lab under professor Dinah Davidson. I was introduced to tropical biology after taking her class, Rainforest Ecology and Conservation, which became one of my favorite University classes, along with a Wildlife Biology and Conservation class taught by one of my University heroes, Dr. Fred Montague. Dr. Davidson worked at the Cocha Cashu research station in Manu, Peru, and was particularly interested in tropical ant species and their diets. Edward O. Wilson was a personal friend of hers, and the work she had me perform in her lab was mainly digitizing ant trajectories from videos taken in the tropics, in order to calculate direction and velocity of different tropical ant species. She also studied how different amino acids in the ants’ diets affected their velocities and movements. I served as her TA for one semester as well, and with her recommendation, was awarded a grant to take a one-month Tropical Ecology field course in Costa Rica through the Organization for Tropical Studies and Duke University.

In the rainforest
I was over the moon with excitement! I had only left the country once in my life during a high school trip to Europe with my Spanish class. And I would finally be immersed in the tropics that I had been studying and had fallen in love with. Sure enough, as soon as I stepped foot in that jungle, I felt as if I had finally found my home. We spent a month traveling around Costa Rica, exploring different ecosystems and making stops at 3 different research stations where we did various research projects which were published in an OTS journal. That was when I decided I would make the tropics my main line of work. Whatever it was that I eventually settled on, it would involve the jungle.

After the Davidson lab, I was hired on by a professor duo, Lissy Coley and Tom Kursar. They taught tropical ecology classes as well, and researched tropical plant toxins and the evolution of toxin resistance in herbivores. I worked closely with the lab chemist, who isolated toxins from plants gathered from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute on Barro-Colorado Island, Panama. We raised moth larvae who fed on these toxins while we observed their resistance to the toxins over a period of time. When I graduated shortly after, Lissy and Tom attended in place of my absent parents (I never knew my dad and my mom couldn’t make it). I was lucky to know such wonderful people who believed in me, pushed me toward my goals and helped make me the person that I am today.

Un-collaring an anesthetized ocelot
Before graduating, I had applied for a volunteer position doing telemetry research (radio collaring and tracking) on ocelots in the jungles of Belize. I was offered the position after a successful phone interview, and a few days after graduating, packed 3 suitcases full of unnecessary clothes and supplies and ventured 2 hours into the jungle. More specifically, I landed at the Belize airport, realized I could barely manage all my suitcases, and had to find a bus that was to take me the 2 hours to San Ignacio. In San Ignacio, I realized I was wearing way too many clothes, got dropped off in the middle of nowhere, and had to walk at least a half hour in the blinding sun with 3 large suitcases in thick jeans and a long-sleeved shirt combo. I was drenched when I finally found the bar in which I was to meet my crew. Lessons 1, 2 and 3 learned. But after the 2 hour drive to the beautiful LasCuevas research station, all my woes were forgotten. I spent 3 months there, hiking every day to the telemetry sites and taking readings on the cats’ locations. I was lucky enough to be part of the un-collaring of some of the ocelots. That involved capturing them, dosing them with an animal tranquilizer, giving them a general health check, removing the quarter-sized ticks from their bodies, and removing the radio collar from their necks. It was amazing being so close to such an elusive creature. Most people have never seen these animals in the wild. I had the opportunity to work on some other projects as well. Another group was raising and releasing 5 harpy eagles into the area, as harpy numbers had declined due to habitat loss and hunting. One of my fondest memories is that of a one-year-old harpy eagle following me around the jungle begging loudly for food. The juvenile eagle was as big as a dog! But eventually this eagle, along with the others, learned to hunt independently and we didn’t see them again.

In London, 2007
I returned to the states in 2004 and was offered my first “adult” job, working as a biologist studying brine shrimp on the Great Salt Lake. The lab was situated in a beautiful area, and I got to go out on the boat many times to sample the lake water, but that job and the daily grind just wasn’t cutting it for me. Though I had a great car, apartment, and steady paycheck for the first time, I still felt unsatisfied. Three years later, when I was offered the opportunity to live and work in London, I sold my car and made the move. I couldn’t pass up such an awesome change of scenery!

In London I worked in administration while volunteering for various conservation organizations, including Savethe Rhino, Wildlife SOS India and Wildlife Aid. Wildlife Aid in Surrey gave me my first taste of the wildlife rehabilitation world. At the sanctuary they took in injured and orphaned animals to rehabilitate and release back into the wild. I got to work with herons, badgers, squirrels, foxes, and waterfowl. My first day as a volunteer, the lady at the front desk shoved some mealworms in my hand and pushed me out the front door, and before I could shriek or ask her why she had done that, a wild English robin flew to my hand, landed, and ate the tasty treat. I was hooked. There was a great big badger there who was too tame to be released into the wild again, so it simply followed us around dog-like, nipping at our heels and begging for attention while we made a hilarious attempt to clean its enclosure. The other, wild badgers all slept in a pile under their shelter while we worked. We were supposed to ignore the playful antics of the badger but it was extremely difficult! I spoke to the founder of Wildlife Aid about my desire to open my own rehabilitation sanctuary one day, and he gave me some sound, personal advice – “don’t do it.”

One of my favorite Merazonia residents
Despite the sound advice, I studied how the sanctuary operated, how the water filtration and recycling system worked, and how the enclosures were built, just for future reference. It seemed that wildlife rehabilitation was a perfect career for me. When my visa ended after my 2-year stay in London, I traveled to Ecuador to volunteer for the Merazonia Wildlife Refuge in Ecuadorian Amazonia. By then I had learned my lesson about luggage and had brought much less, although my heart sank when I realized I had to carry my belongings the full hour walk to through the jungle to the sanctuary, dodging snakes, spiders, and streams on the way. At Merazonia we cared for rehabilitated parrots, macaws, monkeys, otters, kinkajous, and pumas. My favorite memories are ones of the birds there. They were often housed together, parrots being social animals, and a number of them would interact with you upon entering their enclosures. Many of these birds were non-releasable, permanent residents at the sanctuary because they were tame or imprinted, and so we were allowed to interact with them and let them sit on our heads while we cleaned their enclosures. Some of them even held conversations in Spanish with us.

Feeding baby blue-headed parrots

Barbosa, a one-legged pirate bird who spent the entirety of cleaning time nestled in your shirt

Part of my volunteer duties included mandatory monkey-cuddling with this baby injured spider monkey

Connecting with a curious kinkajou

Malcolm, our resident blue-and-gold macaw at Merazonia

In 2009 I ran out of money and returned to the states. This is the biggest downfall of being a perpetual volunteer, of course. The economy had just crashed, and jobs were hard to find in America. I was eager to continue my volunteer-work, so I began organizing fundraising events for a Southern Utah wildlife rehabilitation organization called Southwest Wildlife Foundation. I worked for a summer at a garden center before finding my next “real” job in 2010, working as a microbiology lab technician for a medical device manufacturer, BD Medical. In 2011 I also started volunteering for Great Salt Lake Audubon, one of Utah's local chapters of the National Audubon Society. I joined their Board of Directors and held the Fundraising and Program Chair positions. This gave me my conservation "fix" and made working a repetitive full-time job easier. Though I enjoyed the work at BD, over the next three years I realized for certain that I could no longer be part of the daily grind that is the “American dream.” It just wasn't for me. Despite being paid quite a bit of money, in 2013 I left the 9-to-5 world for good to pursue my real passions; wildlife and travel.

Practicing tree scaling!
I moved to Peru and Ecuador for 8 months, living on a WWOOF organic farm while exploring the beautiful country of Peru. I backpacked the sacred valley, visited Machu Picchu, and joined a volunteer project run by a former professor from Costa Rica, Dr. Donald Brightsmith. He founded the Tambopata ResearchCenter’s macaw research project on the most famous clay-lick in the world. The Tambopata Macaw Project studies the behavior and conservation of the many species of macaw in the region, which is 7-9 hours by boat into the Amazon jungle. The clay-lick at the Tambopata Research Center is visited by hundreds of macaws and parrots per day, as well as other animals interested in its rich supply of minerals. It is one of the most famous places to photograph wildlife in the Amazon, albeit not populated because of the difficulty of getting there. I spent my mornings observing and taking census at the lick, watching the sun rise on hundreds of different macaws and parrots as they made their way to the mineral-rich soil to socialize and eat the clay. The morning chatter of the birds filled the air, and the sun glinted off the rainbow colors of their feathers. It was one of the most beautiful places I’d ever been. I also saw the Amazon River's famous pink dolphins and giant river otters, along with bird called the hoatzin that eats leaves and looks like an alien-chicken. My other duties as a volunteer included identifying birds in the area by song, and monitoring macaw nests, which involved scaling huge trees and placing cameras in the nests or performing health checks on the nestlings. There I learned that macaws are social, curious animals that are interested in humans, which unfortunately gets them killed more easily. Most macaw species are highly endangered because of wildlife trafficking or feather/meat hunting.

View from my window at the Sacred Valley WWOOF farm

One of the macaw family units making their way to the clay-lick first thing in the morning

The hoatzin, alien death chicken

The Tambopata clay-lick and some of its parrots and macaws

Enjoying life at the top of the world (Machu Picchu)

Modeling the project's worm-composting jungle toilet
On the same trip, I returned to Ecuador and Merazonia Wildlife Refuge, where I volunteered for a few more weeks until I was offered a volunteer wildlife photographer position from a friend. My friend had purchased a plot of rainforest land in a corridor he was interested in protecting, and had started building a rehabilitation sanctuary there. I spent the next two weeks traipsing around the rainforest, snapping photos of elusive animals in their natural habitat and cursing at the birds who didn't want to make themselves seen for my camera. I spent every day immersed in nature, and realized that this was where I was most happy – away from the stress, pressure, and monotony of the developed world.

A new experience for this happy JOJ volunteer
Once I ran out of money again I returned to the states. I began brainstorming… how could I continue doing what I loved without running out of money and having to start over? Was it going to be possible to continue doing my volunteer work? I knew there had to be a way. I was determined. And through this determination, Jennie of the Jungle was born. Using my network of wildlife projects around the world, along with my extensive travel experience, I dreamed up a plan. I would take people on trips to the legit projects in my network and give them the same experience I had had the first time I had worked with animals. I would volunteer right there beside them, doing what I love, while introducing them to something they might have a similar passion for. Though I had confidence issues about starting a business of my own, a friend pushed me through them. I had never had parental guidance, been taught anything of the world, or had a good example set for me at home, so was unsure of my abilities to take the leadership role I dreamed myself in. But with effort and motivation, I took that plunge. Now I can do what I love while watching someone’s eyes light up as they connect with an animal for the first time. Jennie of the Jungle is still a new business and I'm still building and shaping it, but with each new trip I've offered, I've received a growing number of interested volunteer adventurers. 

Up close and personal with macaws during my Wildlife Rehab in Guatemala trip in 2017 (Photo: Aron Smolley)

Feeding time for the pacas (Photo: Aron Smolley)

This is the smile I love seeing on a Jennie of the Jungle trip

Feeding a baby squirrel at Greenwood
In 2015 I moved to Boulder, Colorado to complete a wildlife rehabilitation internship at Greenwood Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. At Greenwood I worked with squirrels and songbirds, caring for them and releasing them back into the wild. In 2016 I met a bird-trainer who is as passionate about wildlife and conservation as I am, and shortly after we moved to Belize for 6 months to work with raptor training and rehabilitation in the jungle. During that time I visited Trinidad to take an intensive course on wildlife rehabilitation offered by IWRC, and got to not only see the scarlet ibis and oilbird, but received my passing course-certificate as well, bringing me one step closer to becoming an independent wildlife rehabilitator and giving me more experience for my volunteer work. Currently I am living in Oregon, where my bird-trainer partner continues to work with raptors and I am taking a few months to work on my business full-time, after which I will look for rehabilitation work here. Our long-term goal is to build a sanctuary of our own, we don’t know where yet, but we are searching! In the meantime, I will be busy introducing the world of wildlife work, travel, and conservation to unsuspecting would-be heroes through Jennie of the Jungle.

Assessing the health of a pygmy owl at Belize Raptor Center

My partner and fellow bird-lover, Aron

Kissing a rescued elephant during my first-ever Jennie of the Jungle trip to Thailand in 2015 (Photo: Jennifer Ilene)

Happy clients interacting with rescued baby elephants in Thailand (Photo: Jennifer Ilene)

It’s still not easy – and at times it’s like walking through quicksand, but I stick by my decision to make my dreams a reality, and would encourage the same for anyone. If you had told me 10 or even 5 years ago that I’d be running my own business, I would have scoffed. If you had told that bright-eyed child that she would be responsible for saving the lives of hundreds of animals, she would turn around and with tears in her eyes, give you the biggest smile you’ve ever seen.

A 5-year old me already in love with animals and the world


  1. I know about many of the hardships, that you did not mention here, that were giant hurdles for you to get to where you are now. You didn't give up, you tenaciously persisted, and you made this happen. You are such a valuable human being to this planet. Hopefully you will inspire more people to follow your path, and become stewards over the earth. I could not be more proud of you, Jennie. Thank you for everything that you do.

    1. You are one of the people who kept me going when times were tough, was there for me through some of those hurdles, and continue to be an amazing pillar of support. Thanks for being my bestie!!!


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Antelope Island State Park - best place for sunsets in all of Utah

Saving Thailand's Elephants - Thailand and Myanmar with Jennie of the Jungle Part 1

The Joys of Sustainable Coffee